When the San Francisco Symphony stages its Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at Davies Symphony Hall for the 14th time Saturday, after it moved online in 2020 due to COVID-19, the multidisciplinary event will appropriately commemorate people lost to the pandemic as well as the recently deceased the holiday honors. The occasion reminds us of its core theme — there is no life without death and no death without life, which is cause for celebration.
The symphony, led by Venezuelan conductor Enluis Montes Olivar, presents a concert program of traditional and contemporary Latin American music, including songs composed and sung by Mexican star Flor Amargo. Casa Circulo Cultural of Redwood City’s vividly dressed dancers will appear, and holiday-iconic actors colorfully attired as skeletons known as “Catrines y Catrinas” will amble in the hall and welcome photo ops with concertgoers — just one interactive example of the family-friendly event.
Before the concert, the performers, joined by drummers from the award-winning community art group Loco Bloco, will assemble for a procession on Grove Street. Inside the hall, Bay Area artist Irma Ortiz will share her sugar skull-making craft. Representatives from the Mexican Museum are teaching paper flower and mask making. Artworks, such as an altar from the museum commemorating the pandemic’s deceased, and an altar by Acción Latina-nominated artist Calixto Robles honoring the pandemic’s health care workers and first responders, will be on display.
Robles’ altar, “Tapete de Levantada” (“Rug of the Arisen”), is influenced by a tradition from his native Oaxaca, Mexico, whereby people create a multi-colored sand image as a tribute to their loved ones who have recently died.
“People then pray for and think about the deceased person,” said Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, a longtime San Francisco Symphony collaborator who has curated every Dia de los Muertos celebration at Davies Hall. “Then they sweep up the sand and bring it to the cemetery to place upon their grave.”
Concertgoers will be encouraged to leave messages to recently lost loved ones at the altars, a practice Rodriguez-Salazar said is in keeping with the holiday’s tradition of reaching out to the dearly departed, and an example of why the celebration has grown in popularity.
“I think the event’s popularity developed organically, as we saw more and more audiences come as first-timers, a lot of community people with families who had not gone to an orchestral concert before,” Rodriguez-Salazar said. “They were intrigued about either learning more about the tradition or remembering from their childhood about the tradition, and they wanted their kids to come over and experience it all.”
This year’s Dia de los Muertos celebration focuses on the Aztec legend of the young lovers Huitzilin and Xóchitl whom the sun god Tonatiuh transforms, respectively, into a hummingbird and marigold flower after the former dies in battle and the latter, distraught over his death, begs the god to reunite her with her beloved. The belief in Mexico, based on the legend, is that when a hummingbird approaches, it carries a message from a dead person. The belief of messages from the dead blends with other influences, such as the Catholic All Saints Day.
“Dia de los Muertos brings us back to our roots,” Rodriguez-Salazar said. “It’s a syncretism of the pre-Colombian belief and the Spanish belief, and you see that in Mexico and the rest of Latin America and the Philippines.”
In the selection process for this year’s lineup of performers, Rodriguez-Salazar turned to Olivar, who’s a graduate of El Sistema, the music education program that produced Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, to conduct the concert. Olivar’s agent also represents singer-pianist Emma Mayte Carballo Hernández, better known as Flor Amargo, who impressed Rodriguez-Salazar with her high-energy talent and bravura, which will be on display pre-concert in a performance free to the public at San Francisco’s piers.
“When I mentioned Flor Amargo to a colleague of mine who has a mariachi band he said, ‘I’m going to play for her at the piers on Nov. 6,’” Rodriguez-Salazar said in recounting her astonishment over Amargo’s bold plan for the day. “She’s going to go out at 8 a.m., to the piers with a mariachi band to perform for free, and then arrive at Symphony Hall at 10 a.m. for her first orchestra performance in her life!”
Amargo’s pre-concert flourish (details of which she’ll share on social media), exemplifies her fondness for performing for free in public spaces, which earned her the nickname “La Loca del Metro” (“The Crazy Woman of the Subway”), a reference to her habit of singing and playing musical instruments on the subway in her native Mexico City. But she’s also known as “La Reina del Barrio” (“The Queen of the Neighborhood”), a nickname with roots from her family and home city.
“I feel so connected with all the neighborhoods of Mexico City and the accents of the people, their joy and music.” Amargo said. “And my grandmother always called me ‘La Reina’ and I took that name from my grandmother and combined it with ‘El Barrio.’”
Amargo’s grandmother, who died earlier this year, was the inspiration for one song she’ll sing in concert.
“This song is very special because when my grandmother passed away I went to visit her and I played that song for her,” Amargo recounted. “I sang to her when she was on her deathbed.”
Amargo, a classically trained pianist, sings a genre she calls katartic pop — a fusion of pop, folk music, Mexican cumbia and the piano. She said it has, as the name suggests, a cathartic effect upon the singer.
“Katartic pop is to make a catharsis with the music; it’s not to think the music, it’s to be alone with the music, for it to flow within you, for your body to become an instrument, and when you love the music it passes through your body, through your ears and hands and onto the keyboard, you experience a catharsis,” Amargo explained. “It’s where the music takes you, and you don’t play the music — the music plays you.”
Amargo’s professional name, which translates as “Bitter Flower,” is a reflection of her philosophy on life that appropriately resonates with the mission of the Dia de los Muertos concert.
“I believe that there is no joy without sadness,” Amargo said. “When the night darkens, it will soon be daybreak. We must never forget that when we are very happy we have cried, and when we have cried we never forget that we have been happy. ‘Flor Amargo’ is like half joy and also half pain.”
In previous years, the Dia de los Muertos celebration was coupled with a benefit luncheon, which San Francisco Symphony’s San Francisco League chair Sharon Seto said has raised funds for artistic and community causes, and costs of educational programs for 75,000 children in the Bay Area. This season marks a first-ever post-concert benefit reception and dinner, which Seto, who also has led fundraising drives connected to the Chinese New Year concert, hopes will raise significantly more.
“I call it the little sister for the Chinese New Year Concert, which raises a lot of money, but my goal is for it to become the twin sister,” Seto said.
Seto also cited the Chinese New Year celebration as a template for Dia de los Muertos as an event to promote the Latino community.
She said, “We used that event as a platform to showcase our culture to other communities, and that’s what we would like to do with the Dia de los Muertos fiesta for the Latino community.”
The special significance of this year’s Dia de los Muertos celebration is felt by Seto, Amargo and Rodriguez-Salazar.
“We need to honor that eternal cycle that my ancestors were honoring more than ever now with all this pain inflicted by the pandemic,” Rodriguez-Salazar said. “More than ever, we need to have this opportunity to have a collective grieving with music and fun as well as reverence.”
IF YOU GO: Día de los Muertos at San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Saturday (Doors open at 1 p.m.)
Tickets: 17.50 to $110
Contact: (415) 864-8000, SFSymphony.org/Dia